Rethinking research and development approaches from a decolonisation perspective

Following a recent Dilemmas of Development webinar series, Tracy Kajumba and guest blogger Daniela Nemeti Baba reflect on the complexities of decolonising development approaches to research and development.

Tracy Kajumba's picture Daniela Nemeti Baba's picture
Tracy Kajumba is principal researcher in IIED's Climate Change research group; Daniela Nemeti Baba is a graduate in Msc international development and nanagement at Lund University
14 July 2021
Group of people sit and stand in a circle under a palm tree

Workshop group in Lukolela, Democratic Republic of Congo (Photo: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The notion of colonial rule is often associated with the past. But dominant western power structures with roots in colonisation continue to exacerbate inequalities, particularly in research and development.

Global calls for decolonisation have spread over recent years, but is there global commitment to share power and challenge privilege?

Reflecting on discussions during the webinar series − led by students from Sweden’s Lund University – and on IIED’s commitment to address race and racism, gender equality and intersectionality, and to work in 'business-unusual' ways, we drew together areas where power and privilege, stemming from colonialism, prevail in development and research.

Four common mistakes

1. Research and development interventions are defined and influenced by power holders. The way development processes have been shaped and are maintained links to how development aid was conceived during the colonial era. Foreign aid was and largely remains an instrument of political power, with funded initiatives meeting the interests of donor agencies.

These predominantly Northern-based agencies deploy top-down approaches not informed by local knowledge and context – leading to interventions with limited impact in the long term.

2. Programmes are designed from deficits and gaps, failing to recognise the capabilities and assets that formal and informal institutions of developing countries bring to the table. This has led to capacity development interventions framed as "lack of", “inadequate”, “poor understanding”, “inability to”, and so on.

Solutions proposed are not context specific, nor informed by knowledge of what has worked, and do not build long-term capabilities. These programmes keep developing country institutions and individuals disempowered, believing they are not good enough to manage their own development processes.

3. Development approaches are created outside of local contexts and realities Approaches need to be tailored to different contexts; there is no one-size-fits-all solution. A rights-based approach, for example, cannot work for a displaced community lacking basic needs. Claiming rights is the least of their worries; first comes getting a decent livelihood.

Addressing local needs requires understanding context and intersectional challenges that should inform the design of the response.

4. Local knowledge and capabilities are not deemed good enough. External approaches overseen by international development organisations and their ‘expatriate staff’ undermine the work of ‘local staff’. Expatriate staff often work with a sense of entitlement, superiority and power, historically passed on by colonial culture and legacies.

While local staff have lived experience of what works in-country, their ideas are often ignored. Expatriate staff must respect resident knowledge and expertise and its role in delivering research and development programmes.

How can we learn from these mistakes and change our ways of working?

Reflecting on the above complexities, the following actions need to be considered by researchers and development specialists:

  • Co-design and co-produce research and development solutions with those engaged in the projects. Research is not about personal excellence or superior methods, but about contribution to development processes. Researchers need to challenge privileged and oppressive behaviour which manifests in the way we work with others.

    Be inclusive. Listen, learn and accept opinions and feedback different from yours. Research is an opportunity to amplify voices of the voiceless and expose injustices. Let us keep a people-centred approach at the forefront of our work.
  • Stop power hoarding and genuinely share power with developing country institutions and experts. It is a colonial legacy to concentrate decision-making, resources and power in developed countries and hand down ‘soft’ orders to those without power. Power creates notions of saviourism, accompanied by assumptions that those we work with are uninformed and inexperienced.

    Genuine development requires collaboration and meaningful partnerships based on trust, common purpose and respecting the capabilities and challenges that each party brings to the table.
  • Invest in quality, quantity and longer timescales. Most development and research initiatives are characterised by short-term, siloed projects.

    The pressures on developing country recipients to spend, account and report make it difficult for decision making and implementation processes to be inclusive, democratic or forward looking. They do not foster learning or harness long-term partnerships, so the ‘expatriate’ solutions remain the norm.
  • Be bold in addressing inequality and injustices. Increasing global inequality will continue unless research and development place intersecting inequalities at the centre.

    It is important to realise that inequalities shape the nature of development with intersecting identities which result in overlapping disadvantage. We need to put people first − that includes their needs, priorities, experiences, and solutions. Every situation is unique, every voice counts.
  • Conduct equitable research, in line with the needs of local communities. To conduct equitable research, scholars and researchers need to challenge their power and privilege. Academia bears the responsibility to plant the seed of critical reflection, power and positionality among the new generation of development practitioners and researchers.

It is time to move from rhetoric to genuine action to bring about change in the way we do business. This requires avoiding tokenistic gestures without long-term solutions.

We need to continuously reassess and reconsider positionality, social justice and power relations with the purpose of tackling challenges, contradictions and conflicts in the field of research and development.

About the author

Tracy Kajumba ( is principal researcher in IIED's Climate Change research group

Daniela Nemeti Baba is a graduate in Msc international development and management at Lund University, and organiser of the Dilemmas of Development webinar series.

Tracy Kajumba's picture Daniela Nemeti Baba's picture